Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  Mrs. Whiting and the limo men had made their way from the shirt factory down to the adjacent textile mill that overlooked the falls. The group was clustered just outside the main entrance, sighting along Mrs. Whiting’s extended arm, first looking up at the old building, then out across the river. What was she pointing out? Her own house, a quarter mile upstream? Was that, too, for sale?

  At the end of the courtyard a brick walkway led around the shirt factory and down the slope to the mill, and it was here that Jimmy Minty had planted himself. “You’re on private property, Miles,” he said.

  “I thought all this belonged to the town.”

  “We won’t argue.” Jimmy Minty shrugged. “It’s posted, anyhow.”

  He wasn’t wearing the plaid sport coat he usually wore while on duty. Still, Miles thought he’d check. “Who am I talking to here, Jimmy?”

  “Come again?”

  They were face-to-face now. “Are you on duty?”

  “Sort of. I do a little private consulting.”

  “Like your father used to.”

  He nodded. “Old Mr. Honus Whiting hired my dad now and then. I saw him beat the tar out of a fella one night not far from where we’re standing. I was the only witness, in fact. Stubborn little fucker. It was a beating he could’ve avoided.”

  “How about your mother? Could her beatings have been avoided?”

  Minty took a moment before answering. “No,” he said sadly. “I don’t think so. You all probably heard a lot of that over in your house, huh?”

  “We should’ve called the cops.”

  This seemed to stimulate a memory. “I ever tell you about the time your mom came over? You must not have been there. Hot summer afternoon, all the windows open. My old man was going to town on Ma like he did sometimes when she pissed him off, then all of a sudden he turned around and there was your mother standing right in the middle of our living room, like she paid rent. Told my old man he was going to stop what he was doing ‘right this instant’ and wasn’t ever going to start up again. ‘Right this instant’—her exact words. She had a hammer in her hand, turned around so the claw end faced the front.”

  Miles had no trouble conjuring up the scene. “Right this instant” had been one of her pet phrases. He’d only seen Grace mad once or twice, but he could imagine her there with the hammer, and could also imagine William Minty backing up a step when he saw her.

  “Hard to say what would’ve happened if Ma hadn’t spoke up,” Jimmy chuckled. “She’s settin’ there on the floor with a busted lip, takes one look at your mother standing there with that hammer and tells her to go fuck herself and mind her own business. See, your mom, being so pretty, was what my mom feared most, even more than my old man.” He paused. “She never told you about that day, huh?”

  “Not a word.”

  He shrugged. “Ah, fuck the past, right?” And when Miles offered no opinion on whether this was either possible or advisable, his eyes narrowed. “My boy Zack’s thinking about quitting the football team, did you know that? I keep trying to talk him out of it, but I don’t know. Coach won’t play him no more, so maybe he’s right. What’s the point? All that shit in the newspaper about him being a dirty player. I guess everybody figures he’s a bad kid now. Your friend the principal’s trying to blame him for what happened to that old woman they found.”

  Miles had no desire to hear any of this. “I’m here to see Mrs. Whiting, Jimmy. It won’t take long.”

  The other man seemed almost grateful for the change of subject. “She said for me to tell you tomorrow.”

  “She knew I was coming?”

  “There ain’t much that lady doesn’t know, Miles. Several steps ahead of people like you and me. She’s kind of disappointed in you, is my impression.”

  “I’m sure she’ll tell me all about it,” Miles said and started around the policeman, who grabbed him by the left elbow.

  “Except not today.”

  When Miles hit him, as hard as he could, Jimmy Minty held on to his elbow for balance, but finally had to let go and sit down on the curb that bordered the walkway. His nose was broken, that much Miles could tell. It took the blood a moment to start, then it began to flow freely, soaking the front of his white shirt. Miles could see from where he stood that Timmy was racing frantically around inside the Lincoln, from window to window, as if she had a fat wager on the outcome of these hostilities.

  Down at the mill, Mrs. Whiting and the limo men had gone inside. Miles stood over Minty, unsure what was supposed to happen next. The policeman was leaning back on both hands now and staring up at the gray sky, probably in the hope that his blood wouldn’t flow uphill. He sniffed four or five times, then sneezed mightily, dappling both Miles and himself.

  “Well, how about that?” he said. “Ol’ Miles Roby committing a violent act. Won’t people be surprised.”

  Miles stared down at him, recalling his father’s advice about cops: the worst they could do to you wasn’t that bad. Miles found it more than a little disconcerting to be following his father’s counsel in an important matter, but he was still a very long way from regret, which he had a feeling there’d be plenty of time for later on.

  After a minute, the worst of the nosebleed having stopped, Jimmy Minty got to his feet. He was wobbly, but also, Miles saw, determined. “Come on over to the car,” he said. “Let me put the cuffs on you.”

  “Not until I’ve talked to Mrs. Whiting.”

  “I have my orders.”


  Minty drove his fist into Miles’s midsection, doubling him over. Another punch he didn’t even see dropped him to one knee. He was still trying to get his breath back when Jimmy hit him behind the left ear, setting off an explosion in his skull. He slumped onto the brick path then, and when no further blows followed, he rolled over and saw that Minty had returned to the Camaro and was rooting around in the glove box, which suggested to Miles that he must’ve blacked out, at least for a few seconds. By the time the policeman had located the handcuffs, Miles had managed to get back to his feet.

  “You’d do better to just set back down, Miles,” Minty advised. His nose was swelling and turning gray. “You created your disturbance, and now I’ve quelled it.”

  It occurred to Miles that despite his broken nose, this was a richly rewarding experience for Jimmy Minty. He easily slipped the next punch Miles flung, and then Miles was back on his knees, cradling his stomach, retching onto the bricks.

  “Now straighten up and put out your wrists,” Minty said, but instead, twice more Miles struggled to his feet, and twice more found himself back on the ground.

  By the time Mrs. Whiting and the limo men returned up the walkway, one of Miles’s eyes was completely closed, the other a mere slit. Both men were seated, facing each other, on opposite curbs, looking like they’d been on the same losing side of a fight, the victors having unaccountably run away. The handcuffs still dangled from the policeman’s fingers, and Miles could tell it embarrassed him. “You go on along, Mrs. Whiting,” Minty said, his breathing sounding strangled. “I’ll finish up with this after I’ve caught my breath.”

  The businessmen, clearly nervous, gave the two locals a wide berth, walking well off the brick path onto the grass to circle around them.

  “You amaze me, dear boy,” said Mrs. Whiting. “What was so important that it couldn’t wait until tomorrow?”

  Across the courtyard, Miles could hear the limo’s doors open and close, the solid, well-made sound of money sealing itself off. Since she was probably expecting him to say something about Callahan’s, he decided to disappoint her. “I just came by to give you my notice,” he told her. “You’ll have to find someone else to run the Empire Grill.”

  Jimmy Minty quit fingering his broken nose to listen to this.

  “You appear to have been visited by some sort of revelation, dear boy,” Mrs. Whiting observed. “Here’s my suggestion, though. Why not think things over? Passionate decisions are seldom very sound.”

  “When did you ever feel passion?”

  “Well, it’s true I’m seldom swept away like those with more romantic temperaments,” she conceded. “But we are what we are, and what can’t be cured must be endured.”

  “What can’t be cured must be avenged,” Miles said. “Isn’t that what you mean?”

  She smiled appreciatively. “Payback is how we endure, dear boy. Now, before you say another word in anger, for which I should have to punish you, you’ll want to stop and consider not just your own future but your daughter’s. She may require assistance with her university expenses in a couple of years, much as you did.” She paused to let this sink in. “And of course there are your brother and the others who depend upon the Empire Grill for their admittedly slender livelihoods. In the end, though, it’s up to you, just as it always has been.”

  “Power and control. Right, Francine?”

  It was the first time he had ever called her by her first name. In fact, over the years he’d nearly forgotten it. Strange that it should return to him at this moment.

  If being addressed so intimately offended Mrs. Whiting, she took pains to conceal it. “Ah!” she said, in mock delight. “You were paying attention to my little lessons, weren’t you, dear boy! I could never be sure.” And with that she turned and stepped nimbly around and toward the Lincoln.

  “He preferred my mother, didn’t he, Mrs. Whiting?” Miles called after her. “That’s what all this is about, right?”

  She stopped—stock-still for a moment—then returned to where he sat. “And am I not a model of Christian forbearance, dear boy? Did I not forgive your mother her trespass? Did I not welcome her into the very home she destroyed? Did I not offer her every opportunity for the expiation and redemption you Catholics are forever going on and on about?”

  “Redemption? Wasn’t it really retribution?”

  “Well, as I once explained to my husband, there was a little something in the relationship for each of us.” She started away again, then stopped and turned back. “Having said that, I wouldn’t want to leave you with the wrong impression, dear boy. I was very fond of your mother, just as I’m very fond of you. In the end I think she was glad things didn’t work out quite as she’d hoped. I like to think she came to understand life’s great folly.”

  Then she looked down at the policeman. “Do you think you can manage to lock up, Jimmy? The padlock on that gate is a little stiff. It requires no end of coaxing.”

  “I’ll take care of it, Mrs. Whiting.”

  Miles couldn’t help but smile, having made more or less this same promise to the woman for twenty-five years—the precise destiny his mother had feared above all others. When the Lincoln glided out between the stone pillars, followed by the limo, Miles felt something rub against his elbow, and when he looked down there was Timmy, who must’ve escaped when Mrs. Whiting opened the car door. The animal seemed satisfied with the damage already inflicted on Miles and offered no additional malice.

  Jimmy Minty got to his feet and offered Miles a hand, which Miles accepted and then held out his wrists to be cuffed. Jimmy led him over to the Camaro, kicking the cat out of the way, hard, when she tried to follow.

  Miles tried without luck to remember the last time he’d been in a sports car. The engine growled like a caged animal directly beneath his feet. Charlene had once confessed that she considered this a sexy sound. Human folly indeed. Outside the gate, Minty put the Camaro in Park and went back to close and lock the gate. As Mrs. Whiting had predicted, this was not an easy job, and Miles could hear him swearing at the lock.

  “You never should’ve come back here, old buddy,” Jimmy Minty said when he got back in the car. “Your mother was right about that. I’ll never forget how she screamed at you. I guess that’s what I was trying to say before all this started.” By “all this” he seemed to mean everything that had happened since he’d found Miles parked outside his boyhood home back in September. “I felt real bad when I heard her screaming at you like that, all those things she said when she was dying, and you just trying to help.”

  Miles closed his eyes and listened to her, the memory still fresh, horrible. Go away, Miles. You’re killing me. Can’t you understand that? Your being here is killing me. Killing me.

  “Not that you cared if I felt bad or not,” he added.

  “Do me a favor, Jimmy?” Miles asked when he eased the Camaro out onto Empire Avenue.

  “Sure.” He seemed anxious to demonstrate that despite being habitually and cruelly misused, he wasn’t the sort of man to withhold a favor if asked nicely.

  “Ask my brother to make sure Tick gets down to Boston on Sunday.”

  His promise to his daughter was the thing he’d forgotten, the thing that, had he remembered it, might have kept him from heading down this very wrong road. He remembered thinking a few minutes earlier that there’d be plenty of time for regret later. How quickly “later” had arrived.


  THE BLUE TABLE has the blues. Is it even remotely possible, Tick wonders, that this is somehow due to the continued absence of John Voss, who’d been more absent than present back when he was still sitting there? Even Candace, who usually could be counted on to talk from one bell to the next, is quiet today. What Tick’s trying to fathom is not the girl’s silence, which she understands, but how things work: more specifically whether they happen fast or slow. She knows from recent experience that the whole world can change in what feels like an instant, but she suspects that the swiftness is really just an illusion.

  Take Candace, for instance. Did they become friends yesterday, or has their friendship been growing since September? Clearly it’s caught both of them off guard. The expression on Candace’s face yesterday afternoon, a mixture of gratitude and disbelief, was vivid testimony to how surprised she was to see a swollen-eyed Tick on her doorstep. For the last month she’d been suggesting that Tick stop by some afternoon after school so they could take a walk along the river, but her offhanded manner implied that she didn’t really expect this to happen.

  Tick had no trouble finding where Candace lived with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend of the moment—a three-story building on Front Street. Front ran parallel to the river, below the falls, the worst neighborhood of Empire Falls, settled by the poorest of the French Canadian immigrants back when it was a company town. Houses had been built only on the north side of the street, and for good reason. In the glory days of Empire Textile, the solvents and dyes used on the fabrics were dumped directly into the river, staining the banks below the falls red and green and yellow, according to day of the week and size of the batch. The sloping banks contained rings, like those in a tree trunk, except these were in rainbow colors; they recorded not years but the rise and fall of the river. Even now, fifty years later, only the hardiest weeds and scrub trees grew south of the pavement on Front Street, and when the brush was periodically cleared, surprising patches of fading chartreuse and magenta were revealed.

  The apartment was on the second floor, its entryway at the top of a rickety exterior staircase. The woman who answered Tick’s knock was big and braless and dirty-haired, and didn’t look old enough to have a sixteen-year-old daughter. When she pulled the door open, Tick felt a blast of unhealthy heat and saw a man who looked about her father’s age, wearing a fishnet tank top and seated at a dinette, concentrating grimly on the flyer from the Fairhaven Wal-Mart. “Hey, Moron!” the woman called over her shoulder, without bothering to say hello to Tick, “Candy! You got company!” Then she walked away from the open door, leaving Tick to either come in or not, as suited her. To remain outside suited her best. The sight of this awful woman had the effect of putting Tick’s recent argument with her own mother into a whole different perspective.

  When Candace saw her from the kitchen doorway, her face lit up and then darkened with perplexed embarrassment at the presence of a girl like Christina Roby in their shabby neighborhood. The last time she’d been this surprised was back in September, w
hen the same girl took up residence in art class with herself and the other Boners.

  “Hi?” she offered, apologetically.

  “Could we maybe take that walk?” Tick said.

  “Sure.” Candace’s face quickly brightened again, as if at the opportunity of a lifetime.

  “ANYWAY,” CANDACE SAID after they’d climbed down the bank, “I’m in love with Justin now.”

  At the end of a dry October, the river was running low and they were able to leap from rock to rock pretty far out into the current. From shore it had seemed like they might be able to hopscotch all the way to the opposite bank, but Tick now saw that the farther out into the river they got, the farther apart the rocks actually were. The wind was also more bitter away from the sheltered bank, so they changed direction and headed downstream toward the bend. There the indented shoreline would provide a windbreak.

  “Justin,” Tick repeated when they found a couple big rocks to rest on. She couldn’t help smiling at the idea of Candace and Justin Dibble, who’d spent most of the term tormenting her by describing the monster crush he claimed John Voss had on her. She also suspected that Candace didn’t realize that by flitting, emotionally if not physically, from boy to boy, she was imitating her mother.

  “He really loves me,” she explained, as if the boy’s feelings for her were the deciding factor, as opposed to her feelings for him.

  “What about Zack?”

  “There’ll probably be a fight when he gets out of the hospital,” Candace admitted fatalistically.

  Strange, but fights over Candace appeared to be backing up. Earlier in the week, Bobby, the girl’s former boyfriend from Fairhaven, who Candace claimed had been in jail, showed up at the high school, just off school grounds, looking for Zack Minty, whom he didn’t know by sight, unaware that the boy whose ass he’d come to kick had been admitted to the hospital that morning with an infected gash on his shin. For some reason he’d waited a long time to have the injury looked at, claiming he didn’t even remember how he’d got it but speculating it must have happened at football practice. It hadn’t looked like a football injury to the emergency room physician, who immediately put him on antibiotics. For a long time Zack’s fever had refused to come down, and yesterday the doctors still wanted to keep him under observation, though they’d promised both him and his father that unless his fever spiked again, they’d release him on Friday and wouldn’t stand between him and playing on Saturday, the last home game of the season.

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